Imagine, for a moment, that you are an Iranian mullah. Sitting crosslegged on your Persian rug in Tehran, sipping a cup of chai, you glance up at the map of the Middle East on the wall. It is a disturbing image: your country, the Islamic Republic of Iran, is surrounded on all sides by virulent enemies and regional rivals, both nuclear and non-nuclear.
On your eastern border, the United States has 100,000 troops serving in Afghanistan. On your western border, the US has been occupying Iraq since 2003 and plans to retain a small force of military contractors and CIA operatives even after its official withdrawal next month. Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation, is to the south-east; Turkey, America's NATO ally, to the north-west; Turkmenistan, which has acted as a refueling base for US military transport planes since 2002, to the north-east. To the south, across the Persian Gulf, you see a cluster of US client states: Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet; Qatar, host to a forward headquarters of US Central Command; Saudi Arabia, whose king has exhorted America to "attack Iran" and "cut off the head of the snake".
Then, of course, less than a thousand miles to the west, there is Israel, your mortal enemy, in possession of over a hundred nuclear warheads and with a history of pre-emptive aggression against its opponents.
The map makes it clear: Iran is, literally, encircled by the United States and its allies.
If that wasn't worrying enough, your country seems to be under (covert) attack. Several nuclear scientists have been mysteriously assassinated and, late last year, a sophisticated computer virus succeeded in shutting down roughly a fifth of Iran's nuclear centrifuges. Only last weekend, the "pioneer" of the Islamic Republic's missile program, Major General Hassan Moghaddam, was killed – with 16 others – in a huge explosion at a Revolutionary Guards base 25 miles outside Tehran. You go online to discover western journalists reporting that the Mossad is believed to have been behind the blast.
And then you pause to remind yourself of the fundamental geopolitical lesson that you and your countrymen learned over the last decade: the US and its allies opted for war with non-nuclear Iraq, but diplomacy with nuclear-armed North Korea.
If you were our mullah in Tehran, wouldn't you want Iran to have the bomb – or at the very minimum, "nuclear latency" (that is, the capability and technology to quickly build a nuclear weapon if threatened with attack)?
Let's be clear: there is still no concrete evidence Iran is building a bomb. The latest report from the IAEA, despite its much discussed reference to "possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program", also admits that its inspectors continue "to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at [Iran's] nuclear facilities". The leaders of the Islamic Republic – from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to bombastic President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – maintain their goal is only to develop a civilian nuclear program, not atomic bombs.
Nonetheless, wouldn't it be rational for Iran – geographically encircled, politically isolated, feeling threatened – to want its own arsenal of nukes, for defensive and deterrent purposes? The US government's Nuclear Posture Review admits such weapons play an "essential role in deterring potential adversaries" and maintaining "strategic stability" with other nuclear powers. In 2006, the UK's Ministry of Defense claimed our own strategic nuclear deterrent was designed to "deter and prevent nuclear blackmail and acts of aggression against our vital interests that cannot be countered by other means".
Apparently, what is sauce for the Anglo-American goose is not sauce for the Iranian gander. Empathy is in short supply. As leading US nuclear policy analyst George Perkovich has observed: "The US government never has publicly and objectively assessed Iranian leaders' motivations for seeking nuclear weapons and what the US and others could do to remove those motivations." Instead, the Islamic Republic is dismissed as irrational and megalomaniacal.
But it isn't just Iran's leaders who are unwilling to back down on the nuclear issue. On Tuesday, around 1,000 Iranian students formed a human chain around the uranium conversion facility in Isfahan, chanting "Death to America" and "Death to Israel". Their protest may have been organised by the authorities but even the leaders and members of the opposition Green Movement tend to support Iran's uranium enrichment program. According to a 2010 University of Maryland survey, 55% of Iranians back their country's pursuit of nuclear power and, remarkably, 38% support the building of a nuclear bomb.
So what is to be done? Sanctions haven't worked and won't work. Iranians refuse to compromise on what they believe to be their "inalienable" right to nuclear power under the Non-proliferation treaty. Military action, as the US defence secretary Leon Panetta admitted last week, could have "unintended consequences", including a backlash against "US forces in the region". The threat of attack will only harden the resolve for a nuclear deterrent; belligerence breeds belligerence.
The simple fact is there is no alternative to diplomacy, no matter how truculent or paranoid the leaders of Iran might seem to western eyes. If a nuclear-armed Iran is to be avoided, US politicians have to dial down their threatening rhetoric and tackle the very real and rational perception, on the streets of Tehran and Isfahan, of America and Israel as military threats to the Islamic Republic. Iranians are fearful, nervous, defensive – and, as the Middle East map shows, perhaps with good reason. As the old adage goes, just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they're not out to get you.